With Ontario’s self-imposed deadline for achieving accessibility targets for postsecondary institutions less than a year away, students say that U of T needs to do more to meet those goals.

The Ontario government’s 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) set a goal of making Ontario accessible by 2025. The AODA set out specific guidelines for universities as part of that goal. 

In interviews with The Varsity, students discussed the difficulties they faced in academic contexts and in getting accommodations from Accessibility Services.

Yearning for online learning

For some students with disabilities, a lack of online learning options from U of T has hampered their ability to participate in lectures and retain information. 

The AODA includes sets of standards for accessibility covering five areas: information and communication; employment; transportation; design of public spaces; and customer service. The act also specifies eight areas in which postsecondary institutions should try to implement changes, including digital learning and architecture. In its Recommendation 12, the AODA recommends that universities use funds supplied by the provincial government to increase online learning infrastructure.

U of T’s AODA Office aims to ensure that the university complies with the AODA’s standards for Ontario’s institutions. The university’s 2022 annual AODA report discusses a pilot program in 2021–2022 and 2022–2023 where work-study students edited closed captions for 119 hours of lectures. 

Prisca Sebaratnam, an undergraduate student at UTSG, told The Varsity in an interview that she could have graduated six to 10 years earlier if U of T had accommodated her visual and hearing impairments. Sebaratnam has multiple disabilities stemming from sustaining a traumatic brain injury, along with autoimmune disorders and a hearing impairment.

A lack of registered note-takers and live transcripts has meant that she’s had to retake one course seven times and another five times. She also notes a stark difference between her grades in the courses that accommodate her disabilities and those that don’t. “The courses that I’ve been able to self-accommodate and that I’ve been successful in, I’ve gotten [80s],” she said.

Her doctor has emphasized her need for live transcripts in class and registered note-takers, which she has trouble accessing as her classmates often don’t volunteer to share their notes.

“Anywhere you go, on Facebook, YouTube, or whatever, there’s closed captioning,” she said. “That shouldn’t be something that we need to fight for. It’s 2023.”

The 2022 U of T AODA Office report does not mention encouraging professors to record lectures or provide live transcripts for classes. 

Accessing Accessibility Services

Students also reported having issues with learning about the resources U of T makes available.

Diana Vink, a third-year majoring in literature and critical theory, has multiple disabilities including hypersomnia but is not officially registered with accessibility services due to her complicated healthcare status as an American international student. This means that Vink has to independently negotiate with professors about deadline extensions and missed classes.

“Some days I wake up, and I’m like, I cannot do this today,” she said in an interview with The Varsity. “To not have to advocate for myself all the time would be helpful.”

Though she has found the registrar and academic advisors at Victoria College useful, she finds the main Accessibility Services to be understaffed, hard to research, and “a big mystery.” 

“I don’t think a lot of people know what kinds of accommodations are available,” she said. “I understand that they want to focus on people already in their system, but I think the need on campus is more knowledge about how their services work.”

The AODA “recommends that all college and university policies and procedures related to students should be easy to understand.”

In a statement to The Varsity, Heather Kelly — executive director, student life programs & services — wrote that students can sign up for accessibility services before arriving on campus and that all students wishing to register with Accessibility Service should consult the registration webpage

“Because accommodations are highly individualized and tailored to each student’s specific disability and needs, we encourage students who have concerns about their accommodations and how they are being implemented to speak with their accessibility advisor,” she wrote.

Ottavia Paluch, a second-year at UTM, is visually impaired and has struggled with a lack of signage about access to shuttle buses on the St. George campus and with U of T’s online interactive map of campus, which purports to show accessible entrances and washrooms. She said that doing well as a student with disabilities often requires students to advocate for their needs.

“You have the right to go to your advisors or your professors and tell them, ‘Hey! This is what I need,’” she told The Varsity during an interview.

Architecture’s room for improvement

Catherine Dumé, a fifth-year studying political science, told The Varsity in an interview that architectural difficulties were one of the main downsides to her time at U of T. 

In particular, she described the outdoor steps adjacent to Robarts as “stairs of death, in my opinion, because [they’re] so crooked and then, on top of that, [they’re] all in one shade of concrete.”

“That is just so impossible for me to look at,” Dumé explained. 

She has also fallen on the wooden benches outside of Robarts because the uniform colour makes it difficult for her to perceive the benches’ depth.

In an article for The Varsity last year, Dumé analyzed the accessibility of Robarts Common. She noted that study rooms lack open buttons, and many railings don’t have rails to prevent people from hitting their heads on the concrete above staircases. Dumé characterized U of T as a “leader in accessibility” and noted that the university has been receptive to her complaints and activism.

In terms of accessible building plans, U of T’s 2022 AODA report outlined a new universal washroom in Hart House which opened in October 2022 and elevators at New College’s Wetmore Hall and in the William Doo Auditorium. 

Disclosure: Catherine Dumé served as The Varsity’s accessibility correspondent for Volume 143.